Politics & Government

Lawmakers want fewer children jailed for non-criminal offenses

Codey Hack has been accepted to two Kentucky colleges for the fall semester, according to his mother.

But last week, the Grayson County High School senior was handcuffed and taken to juvenile detention for violating a court order that required him to have no unexcused absences, said Nola Hack.

"There has been no other trouble ... just truancy" said Nola Hack "... It's not enough to lock somebody up."

Hack's situation was described Friday by Tara Grieshop-Goodwin, deputy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, to lawmakers in Frankfort. They are looking for ways to reduce the number of Kentucky teens jailed for non-criminal behavior such as unexcused absences or habitually running away.

Reducing the number is "a priority," state Rep. John Tilley, co-chairman of the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary, said Friday.

"There's a consensus that nobody wants to detain status offenders," said Tilley, a Democrat from Hopkinsville. "The problem is when those status offenders violate court orders," and they can leave judges with no choice, he said.

"Our hope is we don't have to incarcerate kids for something that is not a crime," said Sen. Tom Jensen, Tilley's co-chairman and a Republican from London. Legislators want to come up with legislation for the 2012 legislative session, he said.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, filed a bill that was approved by the state House of Representatives during the 2011 legislative session, but it failed to get out of committee in the Senate.

In 2010, 1,541 youths were locked up in Kentucky for status offenses — misconduct that is not criminal and would not be illegal if committed by adults. Although that is down from 1,765 young people in that category in 2009, Kentucky joins Washington and Texas in having the highest number of status offenders jailed in the country, said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Nola Hack said some of her sons unexcused absences from school stemmed from a diagnosis of clinical depression, and that one excuse from a hospital emergency room was not accepted by school district officials.

Hack said the case was dismissed in court, but not before her son spent time in juvenile detention.

In another case, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in June 2010 that a 15-year-old Jessamine County girl should not have been jailed in 2009 for allegedly missing several days of school and for not following court-ordered requirements from a previous case.

Flood's bill did not eliminate a judge's ability to detain a youth, but it encouraged the use of other actions. It would have limited how long a court order remains in effect so police would not pick up kids on warrants that could be years old.

Flood said last week that she would file a similar bill for the 2012 legislative session.

In 2010, Kentucky counties paid $94 a day for each youth detained for a status offense, totaling almost $1 million for the year, Brooks said.

After increasing from 2003 to 2007, the number of youth in Kentucky detained for status offenses has been dropping.

In Fayette County, 181 teens were jailed for status offenses in 2010, down from 196 in 2009, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Rebecca Macleery, executive director of MASH Services of the Bluegrass in Lexington, said her residential program provides counseling and other services, and is an alternative to juvenile detention. From January through Monday, judges ordered 10 status offenders into the program and referred 12 others.

Jefferson County typically does not place status offenders in secure detention.

Brooks said several counties, including Kenton, Daviess and Whitley, have launched programs to reduce the number of status offenders jailed, but he said more reforms were needed so that efforts are not "rare and random."